Keeping Good Counsel

Education - Saigon/HCMC: March 23, 2016

We sat down to interview Michelle Parker, the Guidance and College Counsellor at The American School, on what it means to be a great school counselor.

How does a counsellor ensure he/she is sending a child on a path the child will both benefit from and enjoy?

They meet one to one and in groups to make assessments to get in touch with who they are. There is never a magic wand or any guarantees; the whole point is that the counsellor works with the children throughout their school career to gain an understanding of the individual's strengths and weaknesses.

To what extent should a counsellor advise a student? Is it more motivational and self-help or strictly academic advice?

Counsellors are never strict about anything. I cover social, emotional, academic and career choices. This is an holistic approach to education, we allow children to make informed choices about their futures.

How do TAS's counsellors determine what subject a student is best at and should pursue?

Their subject strengths don’t really matter, I don’t tell them what to do, ever. It’s just a case of opening up their horizons and getting them to recognise the options open to them. For example if a child wants to be a vet, I would look at their science grades. If they are failing badly then it is not a good match. If however they are adamant that this is the path they want, then it can be an opportunity to improve their science grades. That is to say, if they really want it, then they would have to buckle down to succeed in these core subjects.

Is a counsellor in some ways a child psychologist?

It runs parallel to it. In the US you have to have a degree in psychology and a masters in school counselling. It is a specialisation within the broader subject.

Do parents who meet the counsellor have a say in what the counsellor tells the student?

Parents don’t have any say in what the school counsellor does. Of course we meet with them to explain what we are doing. However it is a case of us informing them what happens and not parents telling the councillors what to do.

Is student counselling a new practice in Vietnam?

It’s not new to American schools, but it is new to Vietnamese. The Vietnamese kids which make up 50% of the school take to the role very well. Kids like to talk, to their counsellor. It is rewarding and incredibly exciting to see them open up for the first time. For them it is extremely cathartic, because they know it is completely private and the trust will not be broken, unless of course, they are in danger.

How do Vietnamese parents who may have not heard of this practice before, react to it?

Asian parents in general seem to take it quite well. They have already made the step of placing the child in an American school, so to a degree they have already taken that leap of faith.

How do Vietnamese students react to counselling compared to foreign students?

Foreign students are more familiar with it, as it is widely used and accepted in the USA. but Vietnamese children soon get used to bit and when they do the reaction is about the same.

How does TAS choose their counsellors? Do they look at his or her background to see if they themselves were a success academically and career-wise?

Obviously qualifications matter immensely, then experience. After that it is all individual to each school. They will have an idea of the style that they want and will choose someone for the role for different reasons.

Has TAS ever had a bad counsellor?

Not so much bad, but in any career field there are going to be cases of a mismatch. You cannot reach every single child, but we really try to get to as many as possible. Counsellors want to help people, they are approachable and open. But sometimes a child will simply not respond to a certain personality, that is just life.

Do you think the age of a counsellor has any bearing on their ability to identify with and enable the children to open up?

I honestly don’t think age is an issue, it’s all personality.

Do counsellors also suggest extracurricular activities for students?

Not so much suggest, but I do get involved. I love sports so I have taught tennis and play a lot of sports here. I really enjoy the teachers versus kids volleyball.

If a student is conflicted between what they want to do and what their parents want, how does a counsellor guide the student to do "the right thing”?

I always tell the child that it’s their life and their future; they must live it. With the guidance of the school we will always put the child’s best interest first. I meet with parents in groups and explain that it is of paramount importance that every child is accepted as an individual. The best thing a parent can do is to support children in their endeavours, no matter what their choices are.

What is your bottom line? What do you see as the best that you offer to the school and the children?

I see my role as more than simply being for the school and the child. The overall picture is to educate the Vietnamese community about what we offer to the children. It is so important that children get guidance and counselling to enable them to grow and be the absolute best that they can be. Support is the key word here, sometimes it is easy to put too much of one’s own opinions onto a child. Failure is not a bad thing, everyone has to fail. They have to be free to fail. Pick themselves up and say, where do I go from here?
The American School Community Service programme started this year. This is a service where all students who qualify will have to have a number of hours of community service. They simply cannot graduate without it. Such things like collecting clothes and giving them to the poor people in the area. Our children are incredibly lucky and lead privileged lives. It is important that they realise it.